Last night I watched the movie Slumdog Millionaire again. It reminded me of Lakshmi. I met her when I was researching In the Presence of the Poor: Changing the Face of India, the story of prominent Indian scientist B.E. Vijayam.
For years Lakshmi–ironically named for the “goddess of wealth”–listened helplessly as her little ones wailed themselves to sleep each night. One handful of rice just wasn’t enough to calm their empty stomachs. But thanks to Dr. Vijayam’s firm belief that technology is the helping hand needed by India’s poorest of the poor, her children no longer go to bed hungry. Lakshmi now runs a thriving dairy business.
The social divisions within India are mind-boggling: A privileged high caste versus oppressed Dalits. The upwardly mobile select versus starvation-poor masses. Educated versus illiterate. The caste to which Lakshmi belongs, the Dalits, is what was formerly known as the untouchables. To be a Dalit means to live in discrimination and poverty. It means to be told every day in countless ways that you are worthless. Dalits are the country’s slumdogs.
But Dr. Vijayam doesn’t believe in India’s social barriers. A long-time university professor who happens to be a devout Christian, he insists that everyone should have a chance. He even managed to convince high-caste, educated scientists to donate their knowledge to help the poverty-stricken, people with whom they would not normally have any contact—people such as Lakshmi. These scientists have accomplished much in the areas of water management and irrigation, limited land use farming, animal husbandry, and industries specifically designed to benefit landless women.
Dr. Vijayam also knows the power of microfinance—banking for the poor. He combines the traditional skills and entrepreneurial instincts of the very poor (especially women), enhances those abilities with new technologies (breeding a cow that produces far more milk, for instance), then makes small loans available to them (usually less than $200 US). As a business becomes self-supporting and the loan is paid off, generally in six months to a year, the money is recycled for others to borrow.
When hope of possibility replaces the desperation of poverty, it makes a way for education… and unity… and opposition to thousands of years of repression. Dr. Vijayam’s work is actively helping to change the face of India.
In the sun-drenched heat of summer, when the west winds blow, Lakshmi cuts wild grass from the roadside to feed her dairy cows. Now her children drink milk with their rice and vegetables before heading off to school.
Is Lakshmi a millionaire? Not by a long shot. But don’t call her a slumdog! She is a businesswoman working hard to make a new life for her children.
“When I was child, I did not know one person who ever went to school. My daughter was a laborer from age nine. But no more. Now even my girls go to school.”